Saturday, September 27, 2008

Honduras: La Ceiba - Utila - Copan Ruinas

It´s been a bit longer than usual since my last update, and quite a bit has happened.  I think we left off with me having a great time snorkeling in Belize, then having a long trip to Honduras via some uber-sketchy port towns in Guatemala.  Well, picking up from there, the last leg of the way from the above-mentioned uber-sketchy port town to La Ceiba, Honduras, went very well.  It was the longest stretch of traveling I´ve done solely in chicken buses.  It´s also the first time I´ve crossed international borders in chicken buses.  And I did it all alone -- I was the only non-native traveler the entire way, and I didn´t have a single problem.  Needless to say, I felt very intrepid and highly competent by the time I arrived safe and sound in La Ceiba.

La Ceiba is the third largest city in Honduras, and has the (very erroneous) reputation of being the party town of the country.  (On that note, I´ll just observe that Farr West, UT, has about as much of a party scene as La Ceiba... enough said.)  I took a down day in that town to do laundry, mail postcards, get over the weariness of traveling in uber-sketchy Guatemalan port towns, and wait for Kim, a friend of mine from law school who was coming from El Salvador. 

The plan from there was to go to Utila, one of Honduras´s Bay Islands out in the Caribbean, and spend a week diving.  The Bay Islands have some of the best diving in the world, and they are the cheapest place in the world to get diving certifications.  I had been really looking forward to diving -- especially after everything I saw in Belize, I couldn´t wait to see what the world of SCUBA had to offer.  It was going to be the highlight of the trip.

But no.  Cruel fate intervened in the form of my crappy eardrum.  The night before we were to take the ferry out to Utila my ear started feeling funny; within a couple of hours, it was very painful, draining, and smelling very bad.  All the telltail signs of an ear infection that I remembered from when I was little and had them so often.  Needless to say this put a major damper on things.  Not only did I know it would prevent me from diving, I also knew that I would be totally miserable unless I could get some good antibiotics.  Fortunately there are two boats to the islands, so Kim and I got tickets for the afternoon boat so that I could go to the doctor in the morning.

It wasn´t too hard to find a doctor - we just went to a dentist´s office and told him I had an ear problem and she pointed me to an ear-nose-throat specialist in a nearby clinic.  I was very impressed with the doctor´s competence (and his ability to show me the inside of every opening in my head on a TV screen in front of me -- it was at once fascinating and disgusting, and it was definitely more than I would have voluntarily shown Kim...).  He agreed that this was an ear infection, confirmed my fears about diving, and proceeded to proscribe a bunch of medications that I was supposed to take.  There ended the competency.  From there on, I was thrown to the wolves of lab technicians and pharmacists who had no idea what tests were supposed to be done (honestly, the woman said she couldn´t take a culture of my ear because I had brushed my teeth that morning) or what drug the doctor had prescribed (I went to six different pharmacies that day and no one had a clue, and of course the doctor wouldn´t answer the phone when I told the pharmacists to call him and ask him for an alternative drug). 

By the end of all this running around, I was fit to be tied.  Not only was I extremely disappointed about not being able to dive, but I was hot and frustrated after walking around in 90-degree tropical heat with an ear infection chasing a non-existent antibiotic, and also the ferry departure was coming up.  So I made a frantic phonecall to dad to get his advice.  He was very helpful (turns out my diarrhea medicine also works for ear infections) and it was good to chat with him and mom for a few minutes.  Unfortunately, I don´t think I was the cheeriest of conversationalists -- in fact, I felt really bad that after almost two months of being gone, all I could do was be grumpy and in a rush.  (Fortunately, I´m feeling much better and am planning on calling again in the next day or two.)

Just to finish quickly with this harrowing tale of ear infections, the diarrhea medicine worked great.  I am now doing much better -- haven´t had pain or draining since that first night.  The ear still isn´t 100 %, but it´ll do.

Now, back to the island.  Kim still wanted to dive, so we found a diving school that had accommodation included in the package and we got a double room so I would be able to stay with her.  While she went to the diving classes and on the dives during the day, I consoled myself with the delights of a caribbean island.  Needless to say, I was quickly consoled.  We were right on the water, with a jetty out into the bay with hammocks and benches where I could read and sunbathe, and when I got too hot, I could just jump off the jetty into the clear blue water.  Just down the street was also a beautiful private beach, with white sand, palm trees, incredibly blue, clear water.  It was also perfect for reading and tanning -- and you could rent kayaks to go out into the coral reef off the tip of the island.  And in town, you could rent bicycles.  With these resources at my fingertips, and the money that I would have used for the diving course now liberated, I had a great time!  The first couple of days I spent doing nothing but reading, swimming, and tanning.  Then I spent a day kayaking, a day cycling, and then another day reading on the beach.  It was really perfect.  SO relaxing!  By the end I actually didn´t mind a bit that I wasn´t diving - it was so much more relaxing just to read, swim, get milkshakes, sleep, etc., instead of having to learn how not to die while breathing 30 meters under the sea...  Someday I´ll get my diving certification, but for the moment I have no regrets.

Oh, and there was some fantastic people watching on the island!  One night Kim and I were eating dinner on the veranda of this restaurant on the main street.  Next to us was an older Scottish couple who were clearly regular vacationers on the island.  They seemed to know all the other middle-aged white vacationers on the island -- looked like some sort of seasonal expat community.  Anyway, two things happened almost at once that were extremely memorable when a Russian guy showed up.  The Scots and the Russian were very happy to see each other and were giving hugs and kisses.  Well, another woman at a neighboring table, obviously very drunk, got excited at the prospect of hugs and kisses, so she got up and got in line - after the Russian had hugged and kissed the Scottish woman this new person asked if she could be next.  After an awkward pause, which told me the guy didn´t know her from Eve, he jovially agreed and gave her a hug.  But then the woman exclaimed that she wanted a kiss -- and that we have lips, and they are for kissing, so she wanted a kiss on her lips.  Before I knew it, she literally was hanging from this Russian´s neck, kissing him on the lips.  He had to forcibly push her away, declaring "enough is enough." 

That episode was good enough in itself, but it gets better. I thought that the Russian felt awkward about the kissing because watching everything was a very pretty, VERY scantily clad younger woman at his side.  I assumed she was the girlfriend or young trophy wife.  After the drunk kisser went back to her seat, the Russian and Scots resumed their conversation.  The young woman was introduced and it was determined that she couldn´t speak a bit of English, so it was safe to proceed talking about her as if she didn´t exist.  The Scots laughed and asked if she was another "niece."  Turns out yes, and they said she was a much better looking "niece" than the last one.  They also asked the Russian if he had brought his wife to the island -- of course not, of course not -- the wife was safely back at the house in Tampa.  The Russian would be here with his "niece" for about a week, at which point he would return to wife and home, and she would go back to Russia.  Imagine Kim´s and my amazement, sitting there, listening to all this!  A mail order prostitute!  What scandal!  What juicy gossip!

And it only got better:  The next day when we were at the beach, the man and his "niece" arrived.  Again, she had about two square centimeters of fabric on her whole body.  And they proceeded to do a soft-core porn photoshoot on the beach.  It was really appalling.  The only consolation was that they were clearly making themselves ridiculous carrying on in such a way, and we noticed that by the end, the "niece´s" extremely exposed derriere had a bright red glow (apparently the sun doesn´t shine there quite so brightly in Russia...).

So much for gossip.  After the very enjoyable week spent on the island, we headed back to La Ceiba, and up to a lodge in the jungle.  This was similar to the place I stayed before - out in the woods, in a very scenic location, with separate little cabins, a natural pool, and great food.  It was really beautiful, relaxing, and one of the best places I´ve stayed all along.  And it was run by Germans -- the efficiency and competency were a balm to my poor distressed soul. 

We stayed at the lodge for one night, then went out on a jungle hike to one of the nearby waterfalls.  The hike was good, and the waterfall was very beautiful.  Hiking in the jungle is a strange sort of adventure because on the one hand it is very similar to every other sort of forest hiking - you´re surrounded by a bunch of trees, mud, dead leaves, etc.  But also very different - because everything is so much more extreme.  I mean, there are ants the size of small children, the spiders are similarly alarming.  The frogs are large and unafraid.  And there are vines and trees of all sorts everywhere.  That´s why you need a guide.  With a machete. 

Machetes are incredible things.  The amount of trail that our 70-year-old guide cleared with nothing more than a rusty machete would have taken an entire scout troop at least three days.  I had expected him to be able to handle the odd vine or tall grass.   I had not expected him to tackle entire tree trunks that had fallen across the path.  By the end of the hike, Kim and I agreed that at the end of time, the survivors will be cockroaches and this old guy with his machete.

After the hike we proceeded to scandalize the dear Germans by saying that we were leaving the lodge so we could go back to La Ceiba to watch the presidential debate (no TV in the jungle, you see).  We got back in time to have dinner before the debate, so we went out to a place by the beach and had hamburgers.  They were good, but during the dinner a massive storm rolled in.  There was lightning and thunder like I had never seen/heard (the kind of thunder that literally knocks the air out of your lungs, and that you can feel with the hair on your arms), and rain like crazy.  Of course the power went out and we finished eating with an oil lamp.  The power eventually came back on, and we thought that was the end of our adventure and that we would be able to return and watch the debate.  WRONG!  We get outside the restaurant and, to our amazement, the streets are rivers!  I don´t mean that the gutters were full, I mean literally that the streets were up to our knees or higher with running water.  Incredible!  We made our way toward our hotel, but as we got farther, we saw that the flooding was only getting deeper.  Not exactly thrilled with the idea of swimming in such water, we flagged down a big pickup that let us hitch a ride in the back.  It took us through the town nearer our hotel, and to a spot where the flooding was less.  Fortunately we were on the third floor of the hotel, so we were fine.  And since the power stayed on, we were able to watch the debate while we dried off.  Talk about an experience!  That´s definitely all the experience I want with storms and flooding in third-world countries.

That´s it for the adventures in the Islands and La Ceiba.  This morning Kim and I parted ways.  I´m now in a town called Copan Ruinas, a small town near a major Mayan ruins site and near the border.  I´ll stay here for a couple of days before heading back to Guatemala for my flight back to the US on Wednesday. 

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